This article is the second in a series on climate change by the Agulhas Climate Change Unit. More articles in the series can be found on the News and Views page. 


The UK public are now more worried about climate change than they have ever been. A recent poll by BEIS showed that 80% were concerned – and the number of people who were very concerned (35%)  is at its highest in polling history. How do we channel this concern into a political mandate for the kind of bold action required?

The recent call by the Committee on Climate Change for a transition to net-zero carbon Britain requires large scale transformation of our systems – food, energy and transport. The climate policy agenda required to deliver this over the next decade is so far reaching that it requires a substantially increased political mandate. Perhaps a mandate on a scale that we have never had to secure before. This cannot be left to a minority of activists, think tanks or academics. It is a mandate that will need to come not from the usual suspects (environmental activists) but from across society.

Politicians in the UK report a desire to take stronger political action on climate change, but they are also concerned that it is still seen as an “outsider issue” without enough pressure generated to motivate action.[1]  With Brexit consuming all the political oxygen and creating an uncertain political landscape, this will require citizens demanding the agenda across the political party spectrum. The question is how do we achieve this?

Last year, Agulhas was commissioned to look into examples of Industrial Transition to identify key elements to successfully manage rapid transitions. One of the key findings, also found in other organisations’ research, was the importance of a deliberative process – finding a way to ensure space for discussion and public involvement in the design of the transition.

These deliberative processes – ‘Mini Publics’ – could be a powerful way to accelerate the political action on climate change. Since Extinction Rebellion made the creation of citizens’ assemblies one of their 3 demands to government, the idea is being discussed by various organisations. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs Michael Gove has expressed an interest, as has London Mayor Sadiq Khan and the leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, along with other MPs. Why is this idea so potentially powerful?

The recent mainstreaming of climate concern, with Extinction Rebellion, David Attenborough on Netflix and the children’s global climate strikes, are successfully ringing the alarm bell. If this momentum is to yield a broad political mandate, the mainstream needs to be involved in the design of the net-zero carbon emission transformation. If the climate policy programme is designed by technical and policy experts without public engagement, there is a high risk that it will be rejected by the public – as we have seen in France with the fuel tax protests. Instead policies need to be designed in ways that engage and motivate people. And because the low carbon transition necessitates changes that will intimately affect all households, there needs to be space to discuss and design the process to be as socially sustainable as possible.

The recent Committee on Climate Change Report on net-zero Britain has estimated that 60% of the emission reductions required in their scenarios will involve some societal or behaviour change – requiring significant public engagement. Indeed, the immense restructuring of our system presents an opportunity to address some underlying core inequalities – exposure to pollution highest amongst the lowest income households and fuel poverty for example – which itself should also create engagement across society. It is not a given that addressing climate change will address inequalities, it is down to the design of the policies, which is why deliberation is so important.

A process that is perceived to be fair, representative and neutral is needed to create this space. The process needs to avoid binary, polarised debate and focus on compromise and consensus. Which is in fact where most members of the public are on climate change – a silently concerned majority. This deliberative process would need to have political authority. It must be embedded in a programme of change, with mechanisms to ensure follow up and implementation, so that the deliberative space is not conducted in a vacuum.

There are a number of ways to conduct deliberative processes, from citizen assemblies which typically involve around 100 citizens, to citizen juries, which tend to be a group of 20-30 people. Both involve bringing together randomly selected, demographically representative members of the public, who are paid to attend to ensure everyone can afford to take part. Citizens deliberate on an issue, with expert contributions and facilitated discussions. They typically take place over several evenings or weekends, culminating in a set of recommendations.

In order for Government and Parliament to recognise the legitimacy of the citizen assembly or other process, it can either be directly commissioned by Government or Parliament (but this may be a time consuming process, and may hamper its perceived fairness and impartiality), or can be established independently but with support from cross-party MPs.

There are also possibilities for deliberative processes at local level, for example, supported by Local Authorities who have declared a ‘climate emergency’ – some areas, including Oxford and Lancaster, have already pledged to run a citizen assembly.

In previous citizen assemblies that have been held on other topics, participants often become highly engaged and self-organise their own follow up. For example, Peter Bryant, who is experienced in running citizen juries, describes an Obesity Citizen Jury which led to the participants deciding to establish their own food co-op. Ireland regularly uses these processes, and used citizen assemblies ahead of its referendum on abortion and same-sex marriage. A citizen assembly held on climate change in Ireland in 2017 led to 80% of participants expressing a willingness to pay higher taxes on high carbon activities. In Texas a citizen assembly helped demonstrate very high public support for renewables which paved the way for a massive growth in the renewable industry across the state.

If done well, and with political authority, citizen assemblies enable politicians from across the spectrum to see the demand for action, not just from activists but from across society. Agulhas are working with a number of other experts and organisations to try to make citizen assemblies on the zero carbon Britain transition happen in the UK and perhaps other countries. Contact me at lucy@agulhas.co.uk if you want to join the consortium.

 

[1] Rebecca Willis (2018) Constructing a ‘Representative Claim’ for Action on Climate Change: Evidence from interviews with Politicians, Political Studies, vol 66(4), pp. 940-958, 6 February 2018, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0032321717753723